The captain of the Indian Kabaddi team, Ajay Thakur, is confident of his side’s chances at the six-nation tournament – Kabaddi Masters Dubai 2018, which is set to begin on June 22, 2018. In an exclusive conversation with FinancialExpress.com, Thakur said that his side has prepared well for the tournament and spent three to four months at various camps working on their fitness.
“We have prepared well for the tournament. We have been part of various camps in last three or four months and have worked more on our defence since there are a lot of attacking players in the team. Our fitness levels have also gone up,” Thakur said, adding that the team cannot afford to be over-confident.
The nine-day tournament supported by the Dubai Sports Council will feature six participating nations — India, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Iran, Argentina and Kenya. On paper, India has a stronger side than any other nation but Thakur believes that every match is important for them.
The tournament will also serve as a preparation for the upcoming Asia Games scheduled to take place between August 18 and September 2, 2018, in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Palembang.
“We cannot be over-confident. We have a huge target in front of us in the form of Asian Games so Kabaddi Masters Dubai Cup becomes very important. Fans also have high hopes from us and follow each match very closely. So, every match is important. I would never want to let those fans down. Also, a win here will give the required confidence for the Asian Games. It will also help us assess our weakness and strategise for the future,” he added.
The biggest attraction of the tournament will be the high-voltage encounters between arch-rivals India and Pakistan on June 22 and June 25 at the Al Wasl Sports Club in Dubai. Thakur said that it is a big match for his side and obviously, there will be some pressure.
“There will always be some pressure. Mere hisab se woh sportsman hi nahi hai jispe pressure nahi hai. It is such a huge game for us (anyone who says he doesn’t feel the pressure is not a sportsperson according to me),” he said.
Thakur, who leads the Tamil Thaliavas in the Pro Kabaddi League, took over the captaincy of the national side from ‘captain cool’ Anup Kumar who had led the side to a World Cup title in 2016 and Asian Gold medal in 2010. The 34-year-old is known for his exceptional leadership skills and filling his boots won’t be an easy job for Thakur who remains hopeful.
“I was very happy when the federation declared that Ajay Thakur will be the captain of the Indian Kabaddi Team. It is a huge deal. But, at the same time, I also felt the pressure because there are so many big players on our team. I didn’t know how to manage these names. But, all of them are very mature, they have been playing for a long time and are experienced. They listen to me carefully. I think Pro Kabaadi also helped them understand how to handle the pressure,” he said.
Thakur said that representing India is a big thing in itself and to lead a side which has dominated the kabaddi scene is an even bigger challenge. So, sometimes the pressure comes from the realisation that you have been given a bigger responsibility.
The 32-year-old raider from Himachal Pradesh, who had turned the game in India’s favour in the 2016 World Cup final against Iran single-handedly with 12 points, hopes to pass on the learnings from his seniors to the next generation.
“When I made my international debut, I played under Pankaj Shirsat and learnt a lot from him. After he retired, Rakesh Kumar became the captain of the Indian team. I learnt a lot from him as well. In last two or three years I have played under Anup Kumar and again learnt a lot of things from him. It’s like a chain which will go on forever. Now, I am the captain and there will be someone else after that. Whatever I have learnt from them, I mix it and share it with my team. The person who will come after me will learn from me and pass it on the next generation. This process will eventually help Indian Kabaddi to grow,” he said.
Asked whether he enjoys this new role, Thakur said that it is a big responsibility. “I won’t say it is something to enjoy since it’s a huge responsibility. I have to make sure everyone stays on board. I have never felt some much pressure playing under Anoop Kumar or other captains,” he said.
However, managing a team full of stars is not an easy job for anyone. The Indian squad selected for Kabaddi Masters in Dubai has as many as five Pro Kabaddi League captains apart from Ajay Thakur — Manjeet Chhillar (Jaipur Pink Panthers), Surender Nada (Haryana Steelers), Deepak Niwas Hooda (Puneri Paltan), Pardeep Narwal (Patna Pirates) and Rahul Chaudhari (Telugu Titans).
The Tamil Thaliavas skipper, however, said that it works in the team’s favour as it allows the coach to select the final seven according to the opposition. “We always discuss this. Since there are so many good players in the side it is always difficult for us to decide the final 7. So, we decide the team depending upon the opposition’s defence. If we think that opposition’s right-side defence is strong, we field a left-sided raider. If we think that they have better defence on the left-side, we field a right-sided defender. We also analyse the strategy of the opposition and play accordingly,” he said.
The star raider was full of praise for Pro Kabaddi League and said that the tournament has produced some exciting talent. “Pro Kabaddi is the platform from where the youngsters are emerging. Players have also started to work hard as they know that they have found a platform where their talent would be appreciated. Till a few years back when we used to play at all India level or even for our villages, only 20 odd teams used to participate. That number has now gone up to 200. Itna craze ho gaya hai logon mein aur investors mein,” he added.
Thakur believes that it is easier to lead the national side as all the players know their roles and can manage themselves.
“I think it is very easy to take all of them along because in the league you sometimes come across players who have just started playing but when you are playing for India, you play with top stars who are high on confidence. They know how to handle the pressure and you don’t have to explain to them everything,” he concluded.